Burning the Shelter
A simple fire reveals the beginnings of our environmental crisis
© Pat O’Hara / CORBIS
In the center of the Glacier Peak Wilderness in northern Washington a magnificent, fully glaciated white volcano rises over a stunningly beautiful region of the North Cascades. On maps, the mountain is called Glacier Peak. To the Salishan people who have always lived in this part of the Cascades, the mountain is Dakobed, the place of emergence. For the better part of a century, a small, three-sided log shelter stood in a place called White Pass, just below one shoulder of the great mountain, tucked securely into a meadow.
In the early fall of 1976, while I was working as a seasonal ranger for the United States Forest Service, I drew the task of burning the White Pass shelter. It was part of a Forest Service plan to remove all human-made objects from wilderness areas, a plan I heartily approved. So I backpacked 11 miles to the pass to set up camp, and for five days I dismantled the shelter and burned the old logs until nothing remained. I spaded up the earth, beaten hard for nearly a century by boot and hoof, and transplanted plugs of vegetation from hidden spots on the nearby ridge.
At the end of those five days I felt good, very smug in fact, about returning the White Pass meadow to its “original” state. As I packed up my camp, the snowstorm had subsided to a few flurries and a chill that felt bone deep with the promise of winter.
I started the steep hike down, and half a mile from the pass I saw two old women. Almost swallowed up in their thick wool caps, they seemed ancient, each weighted with at least 70 years as well as a small backpack. They paused every few steps to lean on their staffs and look out over the North Fork drainage below, a deep, heavily forested river valley that rose on the far side to the glaciers and saw-toothed black granite on the Monte Cristo range. And they smiled hugely upon seeing me.
We stood and chatted for a moment, and as I did with all backpackers, I reluctantly asked them where they were going. The snow quickened a little, obscuring the view, as they told me they were going to the White Pass.
“Our father built a little house up here,” one of them said, “when he worked for the Forest Service like you. Way back before we was born.”
“We’ve been coming up here since we was little,” the other added. “Except last year when Sarah was not well enough.”
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